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A river separates downtown Kyoto and rustic Gion.

22 Days in Japan, Day 14: Kyoto, Kiyomizu, and Kesha

February 26, 2011 in Featured, Travel

The day starts out like any other day, with me eating the same orange juice and pastry combo that I’ve been having since Day One (minus that one day I accidentally bought a curry donut). But it ends on a much higher note.

This entry is part of a series, 22 Days in Japan: A Series»

I arrive in Kyoto at around 2 o’clock, having taken the JR Kyoto line from Osaka. I’m sort of glad to leave Osaka. I feel like I didn’t accomplish much here, nor did I really interact anyone. And my shared hostel room smelled like body odor. It was time to go.

Waiting at Tofukuji station.

Waiting at Tofukuji station.

I manage to step off the train in Gion without any problems. The weather is great, and my first real impression of Kyoto is: it’s peaceful. Tranquil. It seems natural considering the number of temples and shrines in the area. It’s also a very tourist friendly area, with Welcome! signs posted in English, French, German, and Chinese, among others.

The main street of Gion, home of Geishas everywhere.

The main street of Gion, home of geishas everywhere.

I arrive at my new lodgings, a hostel called IchiEnSou, a little before check-in time. Okay, it’s actually about 2:15 pm and check-in starts at around 4. One of the innkeepers (or rather, one half of the married couple that owns the place) is a young lady (I want to say girl, since she looks younger than me) named Sunam. She’s also really cute, both in looks and in that Japanese sort-of way that I can’t really describe. I do find out later that she’s actually Korean, and not Japanese, however.

Either way, Sunam says to come back later and that I can kill some time by visiting one of the major temples in the area, Kiyomizu-dera temple. She offers to draw me a map, but I tell her, thanks, but no thanks, I’ve actually got a GPS on me, and Google Maps to figure out where everything is.

The temple is a twenty minute walk at my brisk pace, but the last five minutes are pretty treacherous stuff. The road leading up to the temple and even the temple itself is like walking through San Francisco. My feet feel like jelly rolls by the time I make it to the top. I really need some sneakers. Or a jetpack.

The top of Kiyomizu-dera temple.

The top of Kiyomizu-dera temple.

As an observation spot, Kiyomizu temple is only so-so. It’s surrounded by a large forest and the temple isn’t high up enough to get a good view of the city. But the temple itself, and the surrounding areas is far grander than your typical Buddhist temple. A couple of notable sights:

Kiyomizu's three-story pagoda.

Kiyomizu's three-story pagoda.

- Near the entrance, some oldschool medieval items carried by monks: a large heavy staff with rings on the top, that seems to be some kind of challenge among the elementary school kids – if you can lift up the staff, you are worthy, something like that – a pair of slippers, and a big square stick that was used for some unknown purpose.

- A mini-temple building filled with little egg-shaped stone “people”, all dressed in red uniforms and colored hats. In front of the building is a large rope. I really have no idea about this one.

You got me.

You got me.

- Stairs leading up and into the forest, which is itself filled with all kinds of little paper signs that remind me of Fatal Frame 2. Spooky. And not a place I’d like to visit at night.

- By the exit, there’s a famous spring where you use giant ladles to catch and drink the flowing water. The line for the spring water tasting is damn long to say the least. Tasted like water to me.

Everyone wants a crack at Kiyomizu's spring water.

Everyone wants a crack at Kiyomizu's spring water.

As one of the major sights in Kyoto, I’d say that Kiyamizu temple is a must visit.

Not much happens on the way back to IchiEnSou. The street leading up to the temple is filled with souvenir shops, and I spend about ten minutes deciding if I should buy a gigantic wooden samurai sword for 8000 yen. I also pass by a little parlor called “Hand Message”. And I buy a melon bread. These are too good.

The next hour and a half or so after I check into the hostel involve me lazing around, waiting for laundry to finish.

As I’m folding and putting away my clothes in my shared dorm room (which, incidentally, does not smell like body odor), I meet a young couple from Australia – Matt and Lauren, and they invite me to dinner. Another American named Katie joins our party and we head out to explore the environs, crossing the river (which is lined with sand and, in Japanese fashion, used as a makeshift beach) that leads into Kyoto’s main shopping, dining, and nightlife district.

It’s amazing how much can change just by crossing one bridge. The main street of Gion feels a little old school, what with the temple area, street decor, and random geisha floating around. But go a couple of hundred feet west, and Gion quickly transforms into Kawaramachi, one of the biggest shopping areas in Kyoto, with department stores like Takashimaya and Hankyu, and also tons of smaller name-brand boutiques (but no less expensive!) like BAPE.

We end up at a random restaurant in the thick of it all, and we’re quickly ushered into our own little private booth, complete with a pull-down shade separating us from everyone else. Nice touch.

Our night is later spent at a genuine karaoke parlor (despite the protests of the Australian guy!) singing the likes of Lady Gaga and Kesha. It feels good to let loose with new friends, as most of my days have been spent on my own.

The night winds down, and by 11ish we’re back at IchiEnSou. Everyone says their good nights and goes to bed, and after all is said and done I’m the only one still sitting in the drawing room area tapping away on my laptop.

After almost two weeks in Japan, I find that I still can’t sleep early. Nor can I wake up early. And so, that is why I am now leaving IchiEnSou and venturing into Gion at midnight. I hope my flashlight can stop any would-be perpetrators.

As it turns out, Gion and the surrounding area is almost as alive at midnight as it is during the day.

Even at midnight, people are still on the move in Gion.

Even at midnight, people are still on the move in Gion.

I’ve decided: tomorrow I’ll be heading to Nara, home of yet another giant temple, more giant buddhas, and lots of friendly deer.

…continued in 22 Days in Japan, Day 15.

***

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